Raptors get back to normal after whirlwind week in NBA spotlight

Jonas Valanciunas had 17 points and 16 rebounds, C.J. Miles scored 21 points and the Toronto Raptors beat the Detroit Pistons 96-91.

TORONTO – The goal was simple: After a whirlwind week where the Toronto Raptors were in the centre of the NBA storm and played five games in eight days – three of them without Kyle Lowry – just get back to winning as normal.

The Raptors did it with a return of their three-point mojo from their primary three-point maestros as Lowry and C.J. Miles combined to shoot 9-of-22 from three in Toronto’s 96-91 win. It was a pair of triples by the duo late in the fourth quarter that put a little air into a back-and-forth second half where neither team could separate itself.

It wasn’t exactly ‘normal’ in that it was a game without some of the elegant outlines the Raptors have been able draw in so many of their wins this season. It was kind of grimy and was won mainly by a lock-down defensive effort in the fourth.

But the Raptors have put together an impressive half a season by being remarkably consistent – they haven’t lost three games in a row all year — and being consistent means figuring out a way to win even when balls are bouncing off feet and not every possession comes off as scripted.

“It wasn’t a pretty win at all,” said DeMar DeRozan. “But we try to understand we don’t even want to lose two games in a row and tonight was one of them games where we could have made it three. We had to buckle down on this thing, get back to protecting home court and not lose multiple games in a row.

Lowry finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists to go along with his four triples and Miles had 21 in a season-high 26 minutes as he got some rare run down the stretch as Toronto shot 42.5 per cent from the floor and made 11-of-31 threes. The production from Miles was welcome on a rare off night by DeRozan, who finished with 17 points and five turnovers as he struggled with the Pistons double teams. The Raptors held the Pistons, clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the tightly bunched Eastern Conference, to 42 per cent shooting – and just 18 points in the fourth.

The win improved Toronto to 30-13 and 16-3 at home, drawing it to within three games of the conference-leading Boston Celtics. The Pistons fell to 22-21.

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As exciting as the Raptors week in the spotlight was – the domination of the Cavaliers, the gutsy near-comeback against the Warriors, a scrappy afternoon against Philadelphia. – it obscured somewhat that Toronto was only 1-3 over its past four games.

In their last two starts against the Warriors and the 76ers the Raptors were undone by two lacklustre first halves, a trend Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was eager to see nipped in the bud.

“We have to come out with a sense of urgency that we haven’t had in the last three games, I would say,” Casey said before Wednesday’s game. “The Cleveland game was different but I think it probably started in the Miami game, maybe even the Brooklyn game, where we were kind of like ‘let’s feel the game out’ or ‘let’s outscore them’ mentality.”

The first quarter was just what the doctor ordered. The Raptors jumped out to a 31-18 lead with six assists on 11 field goals, totals that could have been higher had the Raptors shot better than 1-of-7 from three.

That changed in the second quarter as Miles – 4-of-16 from deep over his past two games, both Raptors losses – knocked down a pair of triples with Norm Powell coming off the bench to hit one too, none of which were as energizing as the triple big man Jonas Valanciunas hit midway through the second quarter. It was his seventh of the year and the eighth of his six-year career.

For the moment the Raptors seemed to be rolling, but things are rarely that easy.

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There was a lot of stuff going on in the arena. Wednesday night marked the NBA’s first-ever You Can Play Night. The You Can Play project is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all who participate in sports, including LGBTQ athletes, coaches and fans.

“The Toronto Raptors are honoured to welcome fans to Air Canada Centre for the first You Can Play night,” said Raptors president Masai Ujiri. “As an organization, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment prides itself on the values of diversity, equality and inclusion and we look forward to being a part of history, together with our passionate fans and the city of Toronto.”

Before the game the Raptors and Drake announced a partnership called ‘Welcome Toronto’ where the Raptors will host six OVO branded home games and Drake and the Raptors would donate $1 million over the next four years to refurbish outdoor basketball courts around the city and a $2 million donation to Canada Basketball over the same period.

“This has been a partnership that we’ve had going on for quite some time now, and I think the key is always to grow, the key is always to evolve,” Drake said at a press conference before the game. “It’s nice to have the uniforms and the fancy court and the merchandise and stuff like that, but what was most important to me was just the call to action. I think in this day and age it’s really easy to get on social media and talk about things we’d like to see change or things we think are wrong, and then there’s an opportunity when you’re presented with one to be able to do something about it.

“So for us, my biggest thing that I’m most proud of in this partnership is the million dollars that we’re gonna be giving to the city to redo these courts and hopefully create an amazing atmosphere for anyone in that community to come out and either play casual basketball or, you know, potentially breed the next generation of Canadian basketball superstars. Which goes to, obviously, our other donation of two million dollars to Canada Basketball.”

Toronto Raptors Drake

Canadian rap star Drake reacts during a press conference. (Frank Gunn/CP)

It’s all very noble and appropriate. But the ability for the Raptors to generate excitement and awareness is increased when they’re winning. For all the energy around the team in the first half of the season, keeping their recent mini swoon – albeit against some tough competition – to a minimum felt urgent.

The Raptors struggled to put their stamp on the game after their strong start. After being up by as much as 15 in the second quarter the Raptors surrendered a 12-2 run late in the half and went into the intermission leading 54-51 after appearing to be on the verge of a blowout.

“We kind of made things difficult for ourselves instead of making the easy play,” said Casey, whose club made 21 turnovers on the night. “I thought in that stretch where we built the big lead, we did do that. We moved the ball, the ball was humming and zipping, we were passing before the traps got there. We made it complicated on ourselves but we’ve got to give Detroit credit – they were really getting into us, getting after us and doing something a little different defensively that threw our rhythm off a bit with their traps. Hats off to them.”

The two clubs started the fourth quarter tied at 73-73 after trading body blows for the third quarter, but even after the Raptors put themselves up by nine with 2:23 remaining on a pair of free-throws by Valanciunas, who finished with 17 points and 16 rebounds, Toronto still had to scare itself by surrendering a pair of late threes by Avery Bradley that made it a one-possession game with 13.4 seconds to play.

But unlike some of their recent games the Raptors were able to stem the tide, get the win and get back to their winning ways.

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